The Death of Nonpartisan Presidential History

A new National Archives plan to privatize presidential libraries will hurt the public’s understanding of our country’s true legacy.

Illustration of an eagle in front of shelves of books
The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Tim Naftali is a clinical associate professor of history at NYU. He was the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Americans are in a heated fight over how schools teach kids about love. What they should be exercised by is how schools teach kids about war and insurrection.

About a month ago, the National Archives and Records Administration signaled in a notice to Congress that it was effectively renouncing its responsibility for fostering and disseminating nonpartisan public history. If Congress does not stop this plan, “NARA Notice 2022-125,” the National Archives will cede control of the museum and classrooms at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, to the private George W. Bush Foundation. The National Archives, which has run the Bush Library since its opening in 2013, will no longer be able to shape the design or have veto power over the text of exhibits in the museum, including on the war in Iraq, the global war on terror, Hurricane Katrina, and the start of the Great Recession.

The implications of the NARA plan would go far beyond what one presidential library in Dallas says about a very controversial war. Hidden in the new NARA notice is language indicating that the approach for the Bush Library would be a model for all future libraries: “This change … reflects our intent, with regard to museum operations, for the administrations of George W. Bush forward.” In other words, this approach will also govern any future Donald J. Trump Presidential Library. Imagine the January 6 exhibit that the Trump facility will put in its museum, let alone its coverage of the impeachment and the 2020 election. It would be as if an Andrew Johnson Presidential Foundation produced the text for a national museum on Reconstruction.

As the inaugural federal director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, I have firsthand experience of what happens when presidential loyalists privatize presidential history. Until 2007, when its museum and research area were turned over to NARA and the entire facility was renamed, the private Richard Nixon Library (which had been placed outside the NARA system as a consequence of Watergate) taught visitors that Watergate was a coup orchestrated by the media and Democratic elites to overturn the 1972 election, that responsibility for the Kent State massacre was ambiguous, that the Watergate plumbers didn’t matter, that the enemies list was the product of a rogue presidential staffer (John W. Dean), and, in the end, that Nixon didn’t do anything his predecessors hadn’t done, except get caught.

The National Archives, before I was hired, had asked the Nixon loyalists running the institution to fix the Watergate exhibit on their own. They couldn’t. Richard Nixon had been personally involved in the original exhibit, and there was, I was told, a disagreement among his allies over how, or even whether, to revise this sacred text. So it became my task as the first federal director to curate a new exhibit. It would be a baptism by fire. Presidential families tend not to take kindly to public criticisms of their father, especially in a building with their name over the front door. But all powerful people have complex legacies—gaining power is rough stuff—and fair and accurate assessments of how they gained power and what they did with it are a necessary ingredient of a free society, especially when that name over the door abused our trust.

Avoiding this future is now up to Congress, which, under the Presidential Libraries Act, has 60 days to approve or reject this plan. (In its notice, NARA stated that the transition is already under way but will need Congress’s authorization to be made permanent.) Despite the plan’s implications for public history about the Iraq War and January 6 , the current Congress might just go along with it. Surprisingly, the spiritual father of this new approach to presidential libraries is Barack Obama, whose foundation announced in 2019 that his presidential museum and educational programming would be private affairs. (Since the establishment of the first presidential library—Franklin D. Roosevelt’s—the National Archives has traditionally run the museums and their educational programs.)

There is a deep irony to NARA’s plan. It came at the end of the long tenure of Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, who left his post in April. In 2009, Ferriero’s confirmation was delayed over the issue of nonpartisan presidential history at the Nixon library because a U.S. senator who had previously served in the Nixon White House, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, placed a temporary hold on Ferriero’s nomination in reaction to what we were doing at the library.

Ferriero was, thankfully, confirmed without making any promises regarding the Nixon Library. Instead, he took political risks to defend an objective Watergate exhibit we had been planning for three years. As the exhibit neared completion in 2010, pressure from Nixon loyalists on the archivist to change the texts and the multimedia exhibits became intense, pushing Ferriero to set up an internal review board at NARA to assess the exhibit. The board recommended placating the Nixonians by getting rid of some of the elements they didn’t like—including details about presidential abuses of powers associated with the Watergate scandal such as the plumbers unit, the enemies list, and Nixon’s efforts to discriminate against Jewish Americans in government in 1971.

Ferriero called me to Washington, asked for my thoughts on these recommendations—all of which had come as a surprise to me—and then overruled his own board. He took a lot of heat, but, to his credit, Ferriero supported installing as complete an exhibit as possible on what was, at that point, the gravest national political trauma of the modern presidency. The NARA notice that came at the end of his tenure is at odds with this legacy.

The installation of the Watergate exhibit had built upon trends in the depiction of presidencies in other presidential libraries. The shift toward examining all aspects of a presidential legacy—the good, the bad, and the ugly—began at the Harry S. Truman Library decades ago, with its decision to have visitors engage in a debate over the dropping of the atomic bomb and an admission in the museum that as an up-and-coming politician, Truman had benefited from the corrupt Pendergast political machine. In the early 2000s, the FDR Library engaged historians to write exhibit panels on the Holocaust, which described the Roosevelt administration’s slowness to admit Jewish refugees until late in the war, and on the internment of Japanese Americans, which described this as a “great injustice.” The library also decided to include references to FDR’s affairs and to his use of deception to persuade more Americans to be interventionists. The goal wasn’t to tarnish Roosevelt or the flag he proudly defended; it was to give a fuller sense of the man, his times, and his use and misuse of power.

Echoing these changes, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library renovated its museum and created a new exhibit about the Vietnam War. Less noteworthy but nonetheless significant, the John F. Kennedy Library in 2011 had its first public program on the Bay of Pigs.

As publicly financed information centers, these libraries are viewed by many Americans, of all political persuasions, as dependable sources of information. It is important to understand that these libraries are imperfect and each library’s reckoning with a complex past has taken years—usually after the passing of not only the president and first lady but also their key advisers. But, over time, they have the capacity to become more objective and less selective.

NARA’s proposed agreement ensures that there will be no evolution of education in that facility and on its website in telling the story of the 43rd president’s eight hugely consequential years. I was there in April. I could find no mention of waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals, or the digital surveillance of Americans. A stirring exhibit on 9/11 starts its story that fateful September day. I saw nothing about the ignored warnings beforehand. And the omissions are not just about foreign policy. The exhibit on Hurricane Katrina doesn’t provide details on the chaos before the Coast Guard started saving thousands of lives.

And besides avoiding some topics wholesale, the Bush Library also presents other issues in obviously biased—and even downright misleading—ways. For example, in explaining the decision to go to war, the section on Iraq stresses the concern that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, not the flawed belief that he still had them in 2002, and notes his support for terrorism, without making clear that he and al-Qaeda were at cross purposes. In explaining the outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the museum asserts: “No stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction are found, although Iraq’s WMD-related program activities are still a threat,” obfuscating the reality that the administration was wrong about Saddam’s arsenal and programs. The library also claims that the post-invasion instability in Iraq was caused by al-Qaeda, and does not mention the tensions between Sunnis and Shia unleashed by the invasion. The Afghanistan section makes no mention of the fact that Osama bin Laden escaped and the Bush years ended with that mass murderer on the lam. With the NARA plan, the museum and public brand would likely only get less truthful, less helpful to civic literacy.

(Though NARA claims it will “continue to lead the education program at the George W. Bush Library” and “maintain control of our own web and social media presence to support our work,” it also states that the Bush Foundation will “take on the responsibility for operating the museum, the education space, and the volunteer program at the library.” If the Foundation and NARA have two distinct educational programs, I fear that rather than having dissonance between their educational messaging, NARA will simply defer to the Foundation’s sanitized version of history to avoid conflict.)

Presidential libraries are just one source of public history. The National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and state and local museums will continue to exist in the public square, and we are blessed with many genuinely terrific private historical museums. However, the National Archives is the only institution that holds the actual documents to back up its exhibits on presidential decision making. As the Nixon Library director, I was able to fend off the Richard Nixon Foundation’s efforts to extend the cover-up in public history—and strengthen Ferriero’s hand—by sourcing documents and recordings proving Nixon’s abuses of power. (The foundation, for its part, calls my account of these events “entirely unfounded.”) Why tell the public (and the 12,000 students who visit each year) a different story upstairs (in the museum) than the one in our records downstairs (the research room and vault)?

Even more important than the brick-and-mortar reality of these libraries is their potential reach as virtual learning centers. In fiscal year 2014 (the most recent period for which we have figures), almost 10 times as many people visited presidential library sites (23 million) as walked through their doors annually. Under the proposed agreement, the educational resources available from these institutions are likely to be even less nonpartisan because they will no longer be written by National Archives professionals.

This would be such a loss. After the insurrection at the Capitol and our continuing divisions over its meaning, the national struggle against “lost causes” and other poisonous historical myths is more important than ever. Scholars, the media, and private centers of learning will continue to do their part. But the National Archives occupies a unique and powerful space that it shouldn’t vacate—and Congress shouldn’t let it.